Please click the name of each director and film to learn more, including running times and composers.
Annotated by Kate Saccone
Women Film Pioneers Project, Columbia University
Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968)
Considered to be the first female film director, the French-born Alice Guy started working as Léon Gaumont’s secretary, eventually directing many films for the company, then with her husband Herbert Blaché, heading her own studio in the United States. Over the course of her career, she made comedies, melodramas, trick films, gangster films, and more. She created stories that focused on religion, race, gender, immigration, and society, also experimenting with synchronized sound using Gaumont’s Chronophone apparatus (phonoscènes), color tinting, and special effects. After the demise of Solax, Guy Blaché continued to direct films for various companies through the late teens, returning to France in 1922.
Les Chiens Savants (1902) by Alice Guy
Running time: 4:33 min
Typical of Gaumont’s output at the time and an example of cinema’s early presentational style, this humorous “demonstration” film showcases a vaudeville act featuring a Miss Dundee and her trained dogs. While the dogs perform tricks like jumping over platforms and sticks, a male aide briefly assists Miss Dundee, who herself is part of the attraction. Music by Frederick Hodges.
Une Histoire Roulante (1906) by Alice Guy
Running time: 2:35 min
In this pun-titled Gaumont comedy, a man rests in a barrel that gets pushed down a hill. The ensuing short is an advanced study on cinematic space and captures the continuity of motion as the rolling barrel moves from location to location violently hurtling into people. Music by Frederick Hodges.
La Barricade (1907) by Alice Guy
Running time: 5:36 min
This historical drama, which depicts a young boy caught by accident in revolutionary conflict, is notable for its unceremonious depiction of a firing squad in action. Remarkable for its confident use of the full frame, it anticipates Guy’s later films made in the United States. Music by Frederick Hodges.
Falling Leaves (1912) by Alice Guy Blaché
Running time: 14:09 min
This straightforward family melodrama was filmed while Solax was still located in Flushing, New York. Falling Leaves echoes aspects of O’Henry’s 1907 short story “The Last Leaf” and depicts the clever attempts of a concerned young girl trying to save her older sister who is dying of consumption. Music by Tamar Muskal.
Making an American Citizen (1912) by Alice Guy Blaché
Running time: 14:18 min
While this film is “‘against’ the oppression of women,” it “tells us more about the social and economic pressures to ‘Americanize’” and assimilate foreigners like Guy Blaché. The film follows an Eastern European couple that comes to the United States, where the husband learns four lessons in “Americanism.” Music by Frederick Hodges.
The Girl in the Armchair (1912) by Alice Guy Blaché
Running time: 12:56 min
In this drama about a man’s gambling addiction and the woman who loves him, Guy Blaché is a master of cinematic space and skillfully stages the action in the foreground and background of the frame. This film is also notable for the nightmare sequence, which, via superimposition, depicts playing cards circling the man and pulls us into his dizzying burden. Music by Frederick Hodges.
Lois Weber (1879-1939)
An actress, screenwriter, producer, film company owner, and director, in 1916 this Pennsylvania-born pioneer was the first female filmmaker to be admitted to the Motion Picture Directors Association. Over the course of her directorial career, she showed great stylistic and thematic range. Often concentrating on stories where women and their struggles were central, Weber looked at female wage equity, abortion, consumer capitalism, and marriage. She mentored young actresses and advocated for more complex female characters onscreen and for women’s involvement in film production. Weber made her last film in 1934.
Suspense (1913) by Lois Weber
Running time: 10:21 min
Weber stars as a young mother who is home alone when a tramp enters her house in this visually captivating and stylistically advanced thriller. The chase scene, the use of split-screen, and the shots of the tramp ascending into the house are all powerful visuals that proclaim Lois Weber’s skill as a film director. Music by Frederick Hodges.
Discontent (1916) by Lois Weber
Running time: 24:50 min
Weber also provided the script for this short family drama, which follows a discontented Civil War veteran who leaves the old soldier’s home and moves in with his wealthy nephew. Focusing on the tensions that arise as a result, Discontent is an incisive exploration of change, family dynamics, class, and happiness. Music by Judith Rosenberg.
The Blot (1921) by Lois Weber
Running time: 93:36 min
The last film made under the banner of Lois Weber Productions, this moral drama, also written by Weber, tackles issues of class and economic inequality, “exploring the ‘blot’ of society’s disregard for its educators and clergymen.” The real focus of the story is the female protagonists and the anxieties, desires, and prejudices wrapped up in their economic positions. Music by Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Mabel Normand (1892-1930)
As a popular slapstick comedienne at Keystone Film Company, Normand made hundreds of comedies with Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and others. Working at a time when the American film industry was beginning to solidify and flourish, Normand was one of the first actresses to serve as her own director and have her name linked to a production company.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) by Mabel Normand
Running time: 11:54 min
This short farce is often only discussed as the vehicle for the onscreen debut of Chaplin’s iconic Tramp (here more lecherous and inebriated than later incarnations). However, Normand, who also stars, captures the chaotic slapstick violence with expert clarity, staging for the camera a comedy of manners and miscommunication. Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Madeline Brandeis (1897-1937)
Born in San Francisco, Brandeis married a wealthy businessman from Omaha, Nebraska and went on to direct and/or independently produce children’s films or stories centered on children. Children of All Lands, her successful series of educational films for Pathé in the late 1920s, was shot on location in Europe and the United States and were accompanied by corresponding novels written and illustrated by Brandeis (who also directed, produced, wrote, and edited the films).
The Star Prince (1918) by Madeline Brandeis
Running time: 58:11 min
Brandeis was just 21 years old when she wrote and directed this feature-length fairytale/fantasy about a boy who falls to earth on a star and his ensuing adventures. With a cast comprised entirely of child actors and captivating animals, The Star Prince offers lessons in kindness, humility, loyalty, and more. Music by Rodney Sauer.
Germaine Dulac (1882-1942)
A filmmaker, theorist, film and theater critic, activist, playwright, and feminist journalist, Dulac was a pioneering member of the “impressionist” or “first avant-garde” movement in 1920s France. Her prolific career included commercial and avant-garde films, abstract shorts, and newsreels in the 1930s. Within these films, Dulac’s narrative and aesthetic approaches varied, ranging from naturalism, symbolist strategies, surrealism, and cinema-specific techniques. Dulac was truly a socially engaged feminist filmmaker whose complex body of work reflects changing conditions, constraints, and possibilities for women from the onset of World War I through the French Occupation. In addition to her leadership in the ciné-club movement, Dulac was involved in the formation of Cinémathèque Française in the 1930s.
La Cigarette (1919) by Germaine Dulac
Running time: 50:02 min
Dulac’s earliest extant title, La Cigarette concerns a liberated young woman and her older husband who believes she is having an affair—speaking to a real postwar crisis of masculinity in France. With its understated acting and location shooting, Dulac fuses realistic tendencies with impressionistic visual association, building tension between modernity/antiquity, life/death, and masculinity/femininity through cinematic-specific techniques, editing, and more. Music by Judith Rosenberg.
La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922) by Germaine Dulac
Running time: 42:39 min
Considered one of Dulac’s most feminist films, it is also a crucial step in her continuing de-emphasis of traditional narrative structures in favor of visual association. This impressionist film offers a bleak portrait of marriage and its constraining effects on the woman, while vividly externalizing her dreams of liberation as only the cinematic medium can. Music by Judith Rosenberg.
Olga Preobrazhenskaia (1881-1971)
Moscow-born Preobrazhenskaia was a theater actress who trained at the Moscow Art Theatre before making her film acting debut in 1913. She became a very popular pre-Revolution film actress. In 1916, she made her directorial debut with Baryshnya-Krestyanka and reportedly taught at the first Soviet state-run film school and directed children’s films before making her most famous cinematic work, The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927). Little is known about her after the early 1940s when Stalinist purges seem to have halted her career.
The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927) by Olga Preobrazhenskaia
Running time: 88:21 min
Returning to a pre-Russian Revolution mode of narrative storytelling, this melodrama focuses on two peasant women—one the victim to an abusive father-in-law and the other emancipated. Preobrazhenskaia takes her time, repeating shots of objects in action, hands at work, and the dizzying movements that comprise the rituals of rural life. The film ends on a hopeful note, celebrating the self-sufficient new (Soviet) woman. Music by Sergei Dreznin.
Marie-Louise Iribe (1894-1934)
Born in Paris and the niece of designer Paul Iribe, Iribe was a popular theater actress who made her film acting debut in 1913. Over the course of her short career, she starred in films by popular filmmakers such as Jacques Feyder, Louis Feuillade, and Jean Renoir; formed her own production company Les Artistes Réunis (alongside husband Pierre Renoir) in the late 1920s; and directed several films of her own.
Le Roi des Aulnes (1929) by Marie-Louise Iribe
Running time: 45:09 min
This early sound drama was Iribe’s second directorial effort and uses cinematic techniques to visualize Goethe’s 1782 ballad Erlkönig and Schubert’s later musical adaptation. Produced by Iribe’s Les Artistes Réunis, this story of the evil Erl King and fairies who follow a father and his sick son speaks to film’s power to externalize what literary and musical models cannot.
Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981)
A prolific filmmaker known for her silhouette animation, the Berlin-born artist hand-manipulated her characters and their environment, made from paper and cardboard, and captured their movement through stop-motion photography. She made animated shorts and features based on fairy tales or fables, contributed shadow plays and silhouette sequences to live-action films, and made stories based on operas in the early sound period, as well as advertisements and more. Forced to leave Germany at the onset of World War II, Reiniger later worked in Italy, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Harlequin (1931) by Lotte Reiniger
Running time: 24:55 min
Reiniger had already completed her full-length masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) when she made this animated tale of romance at the age of 32. A love story set to a Baroque score, Harlequin is a delicate black-and-white ballet rendered through exquisitely detailed silhouettes.
The Stolen Heart (1934) by Lotte Reiniger
Running time: 10:21 min
Based on a fable by Ernst Keienburg, this short drama exhibits an entrancing sense of space. As a story about a monstrous man who steals a town’s musical instruments, scholars argue that this is an anti-Nazi allegory. When the musical instruments come to life, Reiniger’s playful silhouette animation celebrates the power of music as joy overcomes evil.
Papageno (1935) by Lotte Reiniger
Running time: 10:49 min
An example of Reiniger’s animated music films based on opera, Papegeno is filled with impeccable attention to detail. Papageno, a birdcatcher from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” idles his time with his bird companions, fights an undulating snake, and finds love and familial happiness through delicate and delightful visuals that parallel the rhythm and expressivity of the music.
Claire Parker (1906-1981)
Born and educated in Massachusetts, Parker, who had a background in painting and drawing, became the co-inventor of pinscreen animation in Paris, alongside her future husband, Russian animator Alexandre Alexeieff. After A Night on Bald Mountain (1933) the couple continued to experiment and hone the technique with En Passant (1944), the prologue to Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), The Nose (1963), and more. They also made numerous traditionally animated commercial advertisements.
A Night on Bald Mountain (1933) by Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff
Running time: 9:21 min
Taking 18 months to complete, this dizzyingly surreal pinscreen animation interprets music by Mussorgsky as interplay between shadow/light, permanence/impermanence, motion/stillness, human/animal, and night/day. Parker and Alexeieff slowly created the imagery for this dream-like world by constantly adjusting the pins on the board and then filming what their shadows generated.
Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport) (1895-1977)
A successful silent film actress, Reid went on to produce and eventually direct under her married name. During the 1930s, she directed a handful of low budget films for “poverty row” independent producer Willis Kent and then continued working as a producer and screenwriter into the 1950s.
The Woman Condemned (1934) by Mrs. Wallace Reid
Running time: 64:29 min
This low-budget and shadowy twist-filled procedural was the last film that Reid directed and combines the straightforward approach of a silent era drama or thriller with the dizzying absurdity and sensationalism of the independently produced early exploitation and B-genre films.
Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)
Born in Berlin and beginning her artistic career as a dancer and then as an actress in the “mountain film” genre, Riefenstahl’s controversial directorial efforts will always be highly divisive and central to larger debates about art, propaganda, and politics. Her sweeping and carefully constructed documentary portraits of Hitler Nazi ideology, such as Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1936), continue to have both their aesthetic supporters who stress her talent as a filmmaker and their moral detractors who highlight their abhorrent subject matter and use. Spending the rest of her life fighting to clear her name, Riefenstahl also worked as a still photographer later in her career.
Day of Freedom (1935) by Leni Riefenstahl
Running time: 16:58 min
Taking its title from the Nuremburg Rally of 1935, this short documentary presents the armed forces of the Third Reich as an efficient system of bodies and machines in motion. The film is a dangerous celebration—through dynamic visuals and careful editing—of the machines of war and the formations and gestures of the people who make them run.
Mary Ellen Bute (1906-1983)
A pioneering abstract animator and experimental filmmaker, Bute was born in Texas, studied painting in Philadelphia and stage lighting at Yale, and explored the potential of light organs before turning to filmmaking. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the New York-based artist made over a dozen short films, mostly in collaboration with her husband Ted Nemeth. Her work, which started out in black and white before moving to color, was later categorized as “seeing sound,” and were playful experiments in light, rhythm, and movement set to music. Bute also made two live action films later in her career.
Parabola (1937) by Mary Ellen Bute
Running time: 8:28 min
Produced by Bute’s company Expanding Cinema and made in collaboration with Ted Nemeth and sculptor Rutherford Boyd, Parabola is a celebration of film’s ability to create new ways of seeing the forms around us. Creating juxtaposition between light/shadow, stasis/motion, and form/music, the black-and-white short invites us to see the parabolic curve, or “nature’s poetry,” as both invigorating and beguiling.
Spook Sport (1939) by Mary Ellen Bute
Running time: 7:55 min
Spook Sport announces itself as a new kind of film ballet comprised of “color, music, and movement” and is a lively interpretation of a night at a graveyard where colored shapes representing bats, ghosts, and spooks jump, shimmy, bounce, glide, and spiral across the frame. Bute hired animator Norman McLaren to draw these forms directly onto the filmstrip. Filmed in two-color Cinecolor.
Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)
With a career spanning the silent and sound eras, Arzner was the only female director working in the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s (and the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America). Over the course of her career, she made films for Paramount, RKO, MGM, United Artists, and Columbia studios. Known for films that centered on complex female protagonists, Arzner worked with many important actresses of the time, such as Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford. She also invented the boom microphone and in the 1960s, taught filmmaking at UCLA.
Dance, Girl, Dance (excerpt) (1940) by Dorothy Arzner
Running time: 3:53 min
A film about the challenges of being a woman in show business and the complexities of female friendship, Dance, Girl, Dance is a drama of gazes/looks and spectators/performers. With the commanding “Go ahead and stare,” Judy (Maureen O’Hara) interrupts her performance to look at the audience and speak seriously about the nature of gendered spectacle.
Maya Deren (1917-1961)
Heralded as the “Mother of the Underground Film,” Deren was a dancer, choreographer, poet, writer, film activist, theorist, and independent filmmaker who pioneered the American avant-garde. Deren’s cinematic legacy consists mainly of the six films that she made between 1943 and 1958, as well as her prolific writing and film activism. In 1946, she received the Guggenheim Fellowship for “Creative Work in the Field of Motion Pictures.”
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren
Running time: 13:38 min
This avant-garde classic, made in collaboration with husband Alexander Hammid, is an important piece of feminist filmmaking. Of the film, with its subjective camera movement, jump cuts, and visual repetition, Deren wrote, “[it] is concerned with the inner realities of the individual and the way in which the subconscious will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and causal occurrence into a critical emotional experience.” Here in its original version, it is presented intentionally silent.
 Alison McMahan, Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. New York: Bloomsbury, 2002, p. 142.
 Shelley Stamp. Lois Weber in Early Hollywood. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015, p. 207.
 Antonia Lant, ed. Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writings on the First Fifty Years of Cinema. London: Verso, 2006, p. 228-29.